38 Facts About Common Expressions And Sayings

April 26, 2019 | Sammy Tran

38 Facts About Common Expressions And Sayings

 Have you ever wondered where some of our common expressions come from? Many of them have interesting origins or may were actually common events. If you don't know where these saying come from, hopefully this list will let the cat out of the bag.

38. Piss Poor

Meaning: Very Poor
Leather tanneries used to use urine to tan animal skins. To make some money,  very poor families used to all pee in a pot and then take it to the tannery where it could be sold. If you had to do this to survive you were “Piss Poor”.

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37. Doesn't have a pot to piss in

Meaning: So poor you have no possessions what so ever.
Worse than piss poor were the really poor people who did not even have a vessel to carry their urine to the tanneries. They “didn’t have a pot to piss in” and were the absolute poorest of the poor.

A Pot to Pee InFlickr

36. Raining Cats and Dogs

Meaning : Raining very hard
Early cities often had a number of sanitation problems including proliferation of stray cats and dogs. When it rained so heavily that dead animals such as cats and dogs would get washed into the gutters it was said to be raining cats and dogs.

Raining Cats and Dogs  This one goes out to all my friends in the UK at this time. Stay dry, stay warm, and most of all stay near the kettle!Flickr

35. Bringing Home The Bacon

Meaning: Making lots of money
In the old days, a common cooking method was to use a big kettle that hung over the fire. Every day a stew would be made and things to the pot. Common people ate mostly vegetables and did not get much meat.  Sometimes they could obtain pork, which was a special occasion. It was a sign of wealth that a man could get meat for his family to eat hence, “bringing home the bacon.”

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34. "Saved By The Bell" and "The Graveyard Shift"

Meaning: Literally saved by a ringing bell and working all night, respectively.
England is extremely old and small and the people started running out of suitable graves to bury people. One solution to this problem was to dig up old coffins, take the bones to a bone-house, and reuse the grave. When reopening these coffins, a number of them were found to have scratch marks on the inside and they realized they had been burying people alive.  To prevent this from happening a string was tied to the wrist of the supposed corpse, and it was fed through the coffin and up the the surface where it was tied to a bell. Someone would have to sit out in the graveyard all night (the graveyard shift) to listen for the bells. If someone could be saved from this practice they were saved by the bell.


33. Bite the Bullet

Meaning: Accept the situation as it is, specifically an unpleasant one
There was a time when there was little or no access to anesthesia (pain medication) before emergency surgery during or after a battle. Patients would bite down on a bullet in an attempt to help them deal with the pain.

bite a bulletFlickr

32. Blood is Thicker than Water

Meaning: Family comes first
In ancient cultures, blood rituals between men symbolized bonds that were far greater than those of family. The saying also has to do with “blood brothers,” because warriors who symbolically shared the blood they shed in battle together were said to have stronger bonds than biological brothers.

Vikings on a sandy battlefield dune.Getty Images

31. Break the Ice

Meaning: To commence a project or a relationship
Port cities that thrived on trade suffered during the winter because frozen waters prevented commercial ships from entering the city. Ships known as icebreakers would keep supply lines open by breaking the ice and creating a path ships to sail through. People commonly refer to major life decisions as choosing a path. The undertaking of a personal relationship can be seen as going down a certain path with another. This is why “breaking the ice” is often used to refer to the first interaction between people before they begin a relationship.

IcebreakersWikimedia Commons

30. Butter Someone Up

Meaning: To compliment or flatter with the intention of personal benefit
An ancient Indian custom involved throwing balls of butter at statues of the gods. This was done to seek favor from the gods and the hope was that it would ultimately improve one's life situation.

Strange Family Traditions FactsPixabay

29. Bury the hatchet

Meaning: To make peace
This one dates back to the early times North America when the settlers were in conflict with the Native Americans. As part of the peace negotiation, the Native Americans were asked to bury all their hatchets, knives, clubs, and tomahawks literally making their weapons inaccessible.

Shutterstock_634865465 Teslo - a special carpenter's ax Old Russian, for manual cutting of houses from logs - ImageShutterstock

28. Caught Red-Handed

Meaning: To be undoubtably caught in the act of
This expression has its origins in Scotland around the 15th century. In the earliest references, the phrase “red hand” or “redhand” referred to people caught with blood on their hands from murder or poaching. There was actually a law at the time that stated to be convicted of poaching, one would have to still have the blood on their hands, the presence of freshly butchered meat was not enough.

Edward IV FactsShutterstock

27. Eat Humble Pie

Meaning: Suffering humiliation after offering an apology
During the Middle Ages, the lord of a manor would hold a feast after hunting. He would receive the finest cuts of meat and distribute them amongst his family and close friends. Those of a lower standing were served a pie filled with the entrails and innards, known as “umbles.” Therefore, receiving “umble pie” was considered humiliating because it informed others in attendance of the guest’s lower status.


26. Give the Cold Shoulder

Meaning: Ignoring or making one feel unwanted
Although giving someone the cold shoulder today is considered rude, it was actually regarded as a polite gesture in medieval England. After a feast, the host would let his guests know it was time to leave by giving them a cold piece of meat from the shoulder of an animal.

JFK Assassination factsShutterstock

25. Go Cold Turkey

Meaning: To quit something abruptly
The skin of a plucked turkey, or chicken for that matter, is usually cold and covered in goose bumps. During withdrawal, the skin of an addict could become covered with goose bumps. Withdrawal is also known to make addicts feel hot-and-cold and shiver uncontrollably. It is said that they look like a plucked turkey.


24. Go the Whole 9 Yards

Meaning: To complete a task, or go all the way
World War II Fighter pilots received a 9 yard chain of ammunition. Therefore, when a pilot spent all of his ammunition he has gone “the whole 9 yards.”

The Tuskeegee AirmenWikimedia Common

23. Jaywalker

Meaning: One who crosses the street illegally
Jay birds that traveled outside of the forest into urban areas often became confused and unaware of the potential dangers in the city – like traffic. Amused by their erratic behavior, people began using the term “Jaywalker” to describe someone who crossed the street irresponsibly.

Shutterstock_637594957 Portrait girl crossing busy city street/ Girl Crossing Street/ Girl crossing street in Tokyo, Japan - ImageShutterstock

22. Kick the Bucket

Meaning: To die
When a cow was killed at a slaughterhouse, a bucket was placed under it while it was being slaughtered. Sometimes the animal’s legs would kick during this process it would literally kick the bucket as it is being killed.

Kick the BucketFlickr

21. Let Your Hair Down

Meaning: To relax
Parisian nobles risked condemnation from their peers if they appeared in public without their hair done in an elaborate fashion. Some of the more intricate styles required hours standing in place while their servants worked on their hair. It was a relaxing ritual for these ladies to come home at the end of a day and let their hair down.

Shutterstock_257813788 redhead girl relaxing lying on the grass. woman relaxation outdoor. photo with artistic effect. vintage toning. film retro style - ImageShutterstock

20. More Than You Can Shake a Stick At

Meaning: Having more than you need
Farmers controlled their sheep by shaking their staffs to indicate where the animals should go. When farmers had more sheep than they could control, it was said they had “more than you can shake a stick at.”

Shutterstock_1291301761 Rajasthani tribal man wears traditional colorful casual and herding flock of sheeps in field - ImageShutterstock

19. No Spring Chicken

Meaning: Past prime or old
Chicken farmers generally sold chickens in the spring, so the chickens born in the springtime yielded better earnings than the chickens that survived the winter. Sometimes, farmers tried to sell older birds for the price of a new spring chicken. Buyers would claim the older birds are “no spring chicken,” and the term came to represent anyone past their prime.

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18. Rub the Wrong Way

Meaning: To annoy someone
In the 18th century, servants were required to wet-rub and dry-rub the oak floors of their employer's homes each week. Doing it against the grain caused streaks to form, ruining the look of the wood. This undoubtably would irritate the homeowner.

Cringeworthy Dates factsPixabay

17. Rule of Thumb

Meaning: A standard best practice
It is said that a 17th century English Judge ruled it was permissible for a husband to beat his wife with a stick, given that the stick was no wider than his thumb. This became known as the rule of thumb.

Twisted FactsShutterstock

16. Show Your True Colors

Meaning: To reveal one’s true nature
Warships used to fly multiple flags to confuse their enemies. The rules of warfare stated that a ship had to hoist its true flag before firing and hence before a ship would launch an attack, it would display its country’s true colors, revealing which side of the battle the ship is on.

American and Israeli Flags on MastWikimedia Commons

15. Sleep Tight

Meaning: Have a nice sleep
During the Middle Ages, mattresses were supported on bed frames by ropes. In order to make mattress sit evenly, the ropes that supported the mattress needed to be tight. Over time these ropes would need to be tightened to ensure the person sleeping on it has a deep, refreshing sleep.

Shutterstock_676996945 The vintage style furniture made from the net of white robes stretched to the square wooden frame on all sides, it can be an outdoor sofa or chair - ImageShutterstock

14. Spill the Beans

Meaning: To reveal a secret
In Ancient Greece, beans were used by politicians to cast their votes on various topics. One container for each outcome was set out for beans to be placed in which represented a vote.  At the end the beans would be spilled out and counted. This would reveal the outcome of the confidential vote.

Someone spilled the beansFlickr

13. Waking Up on the Wrong Side of the Bed

Meaning: Waking up in a bad mood
In the Middle Ages, he left side of the body or anything having to do with the left was often associated considered sinister. To ward off evil, innkeepers made sure the left side of the bed was pushed against a wall, so guests had no other option but to get up on the right side of the bed.

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12. Pulling my leg

Meaning: To tell a lie in an attempt at humor
This phrase actually has sinister origins. Eighteenth century street thieves would literally pull victims down by their leg in order to  rob them.

Edward IV FactsPixabay

11. Break a leg

Meaning: Good Luck
Superstitions run rampant in the theater, and one such superstition is that wishing someone good luck is actually going to have the opposite effect. Instead ,one would be wished ill will, such as breaking a leg on stage, since the opposite was supposed to occur.

Gut Feeling Turned Out to Be True FactsShutterstock

10. Can't hold a candle to

Meaning: Not as skilled
Before electricity, skilled workers needed a second set of hands to hold a candle for them as they did their work. Holding the candle was clearly a less challenging job, so someone the less qualified worker would provide light to a better one.

Arthur Miller factsPixabay

9."Close, but no cigar."

Meaning: Almost, but not quite
Carnivals used to give out cigars as prizes, so almost winning would get you close to achieving a cigar, but not quite. The phrase evolved in meaning and now refers to coming close to a goal but falling short.

So Close, Yet So FarFlickr

8. Mind your p's and q's

Meaning: Mind your manners
In the 17th century, pubs served beer in pints and quarts. If a patron was getting drunk, the bartender might warn them to mind their p's and q's. Now the term simply means to mind your manners, drunk or not.

Mississipi MudFlickr

7. Three sheets to the wind

Meaning: Very drunk
Sailors had a lot of terms for being drunk and they all related to the ship. Being tipsy was "a sheet in the wind's eye" and being hammered was a full "three sheets to the wind." The sheets in question were actually the sails, so if all three ropes which held the sheets were loose (the sailor was drunk), the sails would blow all over the place, not unlike a stumbling drunken sailor.

Trashiest Holiday factsPixabay

6.White Elephant

Meaning: Valuable but not worth the cost of upkeep
Albino elephants were highly regarded in Southeast Asia, and they were cared for lavishly. The term "white elephant" eventually evolved to mean any valuable but burdensome possession of which its owner cannot dispose and whose cost of upkeep is out of proportion to its usefulness or worth.

Arya Stark quizPixabay

5. Mad as a hatter

Meaning: To be completely crazy
In the 17th and 18th centuries poisoning occurred among hat makers who used mercury, a poisonous substance unbeknownst at the time, for the hat felt. The “Mad Hatter Disease” was marked by shyness, irritability, and tremors that would make the person appear “mad.”

hatterWikimedia Commons

4. Barking up the wrong tree

Meaning: To have misjudged a situation
This refers to hunting dogs that may have chased their prey up a tree. The dogs bark, assuming that the prey is still in the tree, when the prey is no longer there.

dog breed treeingWikimedia Commons

3. Turn a blind eye

Meaning: To ignore situations, facts, or reality
The British Naval hero, Admiral Horatio Nelson, had one blind eye. Once when the British forces signaled for him to stop attacking a fleet of Danish ships, he held up a telescope to his blind eye and said, “I do not see the signal.” He attacked and was victorious.

Stupidest Things to Impress Crush factsShutterstock

2. The Cat is out of the Bag

Meaning: Reveal a secret
Farmers used to bring piglets into market in a bag as they were very difficult to catch if they got loose. Fraudulent farmers would substitute a cat for a piglet at markets. If you let the cat out of the bag you revealed the lie.

Cats factsPixabay

1. Cat Got Your Tongue?

Meaning: Unable to come up with the words
This refers to a common military punishment, flogging from a whip which contained many strands rather than one single strand. This type of whip is known as a cat-o’-nine-tails and is said to have caused so much pain that the victims were left speechless.

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